Summer 1991, North Hollywood, California.
Growing up in the “Hollywood” scene with all its full and rich over indulgences never ceases to amaze the senses, especially when you are a “spoiled kid-turned adult” like myself. Of course when you are immersed in this lifestyle, you are unaware of these privileges, until you get a reality check. The first sign of my reality check came on my 28th birthday; otherwise an ordinary day in my typical Hollywood lifestyle, but I didn’t know it.
It was a hot September afternoon, and after a night of heavy partying, I was looking forward to a “cool-off” dip in my pool. I knew it was gonna feel real good, especially ’cause I could use the rest and relaxation in a tranquil setting.
I dipped my toe into the unheated water like a little kid, until I got the nerve to jump in on all fours. The initial shock of the cold water quickly dissipated and began to give way to a feeling of relief and calm setting in…but then OUCH!
As I began to ascend, I felt a pain shooting up from my groin all the way up to my brain, the intensity of which I had never felt before. My first thought was “Oh Shit I MUST HAVE HIT BOTTOM!”
My teeth felt like they were floating because my behind was hurting so much that when I began to surface, I jumped up and gasped to take what felt like my first breath after being born. As I struggled to make my way to the shallow end, I looked back to notice a small trail of blood dissipating behind me in the water.
After my initial panic, I realized I had not hit bottom, but was puzzled as to the source of my bleeding. Since I couldn’t figure it out in the immediate (any issue requiring my attention longer than five minutes didn’t fit into my fast lifestyle) I decided to go about my day as if nothing happened.
Over the next several days I began to suffer from constipation, but true-to-form, I didn’t really put much thought into it. Besides, that tended to happen occasionally, especially after partying for days. After about two weeks or so, I began to notice that this time, it felt like I was “stopped up”.
That’s when I realized something was wrong. So I broke down and after a quick trip to my urgent care at Kaiser, it was discovered the “root” of stool blockage was none other than (drum roll)….Hemorrhoids! (You were expecting something else?) Confused? Lemme explain using a “Hollywood” or “Magic Show” example, since I love magic.
It’s kinda like that ‘ol magic trick from the 70’s where you take a small necked bottle (with a secret rubber ball inside) that when you insert a shoe-string into the bottle, you can pull the string right out without a hitch. But turn the bottle upside down for a second, and the string magically sticks inside the bottle, and you can literally carry the bottle upright by only the string itself.
You see when you inverted the bottle, the hidden rubber ball tries to fall out of the bottle but gets wedged between the neck of the bottle and the string. This causes a wedge-backup that holds the string in-place and won’t let anything in or out of the bottle.
To my dismay, much like the trick, that’s exactly what internal hemorrhoids can do. If the extra pieces of skin growth (hemorrhoids) get too big or long (inside your anus in the rectum), they act like that little rubber ball in the bottle trick, and the string is your stool in your bowels.
So it was hemorrhoids that were blocking my stool from coming out. The blood in the pool was the hemorrhoids bleeding out from my anus and the pain was from the chlorinated pool water affecting my slightly protruding hemorrhoid.
It was time to go into my very first surgery and like everything else in my life, I was going to attack this problem by jumping in on all fours. I set up my surgical procedure the very next week and was confident as a rich cocky kid could be, because, hell… I was invincible, right?
Waking up in the recovery room at St. Joseph’s Hospital, Burbank, California, the dialogue with my doctor went something like this:
Rich: “Did we make it?”
Doctor Tobar: “Well yes… But there’s good news, and there’s bad news…”
Rich: “Wha… what does that mean?”
Doctor Tobar: “Well… you don’t have hemorrhoids any more, is the good news. The bad news is… you have CANCER.”
Rich: “Am I gonna die?”
Doctor Tobar: “Well let’s just say that without discovery, you might have had six months to a year to live.”
It’s been 29 years since that statement was made to me, and I don’t think that there’s a single day, ever since, that those words don’t echo in my brain. Just when “Everything was going so good…” and my life was “perfect”. Or so I thought. And with those words began my first “real world” reality check — my wake-up call from Fantasy-Land, and what I know now turned out to be the biggest blessing in disguise.
I was diagnosed with a relatively rare type of cancer called Squamous Cell Carcinoma on the skin in my anus area. I had to undergo another surgery to remove the cancer, followed by three months of chemotherapy and radiation treatments. Squamous Cell Carcinoma is a stubborn cancer, but luckily because I was young and relatively healthy when diagnosed, my body could withstand an aggressive treatment to give me the best prognosis.
I’ve blocked most of that period out of my brain so it’s hard to remember the whole experience. I mostly retained “glimpses of moments” that I’ll share here in no particular order.
– At first, not feeling the radiation at all, feeling like this is a cake walk
-Getting onto the radiation table and having a nurse tell me “it’s time to shave your cute butt”.
– Having a special mold of my butt made like a cast to keep me from moving it at all during radiation treatments.
– Nurse shoving a 3-foot blue tube up my arm asking me to let her know when it hits my heart. I ask her how should I know when it reaches my heart, I’m not a doctor…. Ouch! Okay, okay you hit my heart… You Can Stop Now!
– Purple Chemo from a tube reminiscent of a clear caulking gun from Home depot, being pumped up through the small tube dripping on top of my heart.
– Body feeling hot and dizzy like I’m being poisoned.
– Feeling a drastic nausea, no hunger, body aches and pains.
– Feeling really really really weak, like I’m going to pass out and die.
– Having a small chemo bag and battery-operated pump around my waist for three weeks at a time.
– Losing all my hair, and skin so fragile that I can take my fingernail and easily gouge into my skin.
– Having such significant anal pain that I can’t even use a toilet anymore.
– Chemo shrinking my tongue to resemble a little pinky-like digit and inside of my mouth completely white from poisoning.
– Having to sit in a hot tub 10-20 times a day to loosen my excrement for bowel movements.
– Pain from radiation so bad that I spend most days in bed crying, pleading for God to just take me now.
– Losing more than 25 lbs because I can’t get myself to eat, to avoid the pain of needing to have a bowel movement.
– Losing so much blood from my anus area during recovery that they have to give me blood.
– All during this six month treatment period, I’m still trying to go to work and be productive.
Anyway, 29 years later, I still have my “BAD” pain days to remind me, with 2nd degree burns to my anus. My IBS is something I simply have to live with and my immune system is always wreaking havoc on me. I feel as if I’m always on the verge of catching a cold, the flu, etc… and I’m actually one of the lucky ones.
I’m lucky because I’m still here. Still trying to be active. Still productive. And still producing video programs. My doctor told me I was the luckiest man with hemorrhoids because were it not for the hemorrhoids, they would not have discovered the cancer. So technically it could be said the hemorrhoids saved my life.
But if there is one thing in this world that all cancer survivors know, it’s that nothing is that simple. Remember I said earlier that my “wake-up” call, my cancer diagnosis, was in fact the true blessing in disguise which changed my life? It wasn’t the hemorrhoids.
The fact is, as ugly as my experience was, it was my appreciation for life and the realization that it could be taken at any moment which opened my eyes to the senseless life I had been living. Were it not for the cancer, I would have continued “wasting” my life away, with no real sense of purpose or regard for my fellow mankind, and probably have died in some self-destructive manner (as many of my former friends from that time unfortunately did.)
Because of what I went through, I became (at least I believe) a more empathetic, caring individual who takes pride in incorporating cancer awareness into my work whenever I can, and tries to live a more meaningful life. While I would not wish a cancer diagnosis on anyone, I do feel that for myself, it was literally a life-changing and life-saving event.
For Grace Note: Emmy Award winner Rich Tamayo is the owner of TVP Live, and has webcast most of For Grace’s Women In Pain conferences. He’ll be webcasting our February 2021 “Pain-Cancer Connection” event which will be held exclusively online. Rich’s broadcasting talent is second to none, and we wouldn’t work with anyone else!